Building an Engaged School: Management Matters

Erik EllefsenInnovation1 Comment

jarmoluk / Pixabay

jarmoluk / Pixabay

“Hire good people who hire good people, and let them do their job.” Tom Ricketts

A World Series and Organizational Change:

In six seasons, Tom Ricketts was able to lead the transformation of the most dismal or unlucky professional baseball team depending upon your view of the prior 100 years. Much analysis will be done on the Chicago Cubs as other organizations try to emulate their turnaround especially if they have long-term success, but Ricketts understood right from the beginning that what created losing on the field was mismanagement throughout the entire organization.

After his first season in 2010, Ricketts made the decision to rebuild the entirety of the organization and on the baseball side hired Theo Epstein as President of Baseball Operations. Epstein then gathered his leadership team from his Red Sox days from all and endured the rebuilding process through three miserable seasons (2012-2014). As the organizational pieces were put in place from scouting, analytics, player development, facility improvement, and a host of other facets the team on the field was beginning to show the promise and talent that Cub fans had hoped for and Epstein knew he could assemble. However, to manage a team with loads of young talent and the occasional high priced veteran a different sort of innovator was needed and Epstein pounced on the opportunity to hire Joe Maddon who had proven himself to be one of the most engaging and innovative clubhouse leaders in baseball.

Review of Engagement:

Like Ricketts’s rebuild, schools must be seen in a similar and comprehensive fashion. We desire for students to be engaged in learning, but this won’t fully happen unless schools take an organizational approach which I laid out in my first blog on this matter, Engagement Matters. Likewise, in my last blog I argued that finding a leader is essential, costly, and rare in Building an Engaged School: Get a Leader.

Using Ricketts as an example, he hired someone who was a great fit for turning around dismal baseball organizations in Theo Epstein. So as we consider school leadership it is important to understand the context of the school, the vision of the institution, and the goals of the board in hiring the “right” or “good” person. We will see if the Cubs can sustain their success and truly become a winning organization like the more successful Yankees, Cardinals, and Giants, but in that same vain will your commitment to leadership allow your school to become a place of dynamic and sustainable learning. However, we have placed an over-emphasis on leadership and not enough focus on the importance of the high quality leadership of managers.

Why Management Matters:

To me, Joe Maddon’s hiring was both shrewd and a necessity even though his predecessor was having growing success and is now the manager for the crosstown rival White Sox. Maddon’s management of players was the last piece to bring together an organization that had a clear leadership ability and an abundance of talent on the field. Ultimately, I think what is missed most in schools is an understanding that managers are the daily implementers of the vision. In an attempt to streamline organizations, downplay management theory, or rebel against bureaucracy we’ve lost sight of the necessity of a multi-layered organization that has good people in roles that allow them to fully maximize the success of in our case students.

According to fascinating research from Gallup on managers and management there are three things I’d encourage schools to consider:

  1. Managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement: Gallup has found that having a good manager improves employee engagement even more than having a great leader. The research clearly shows a correlation between workplace engagement, professional success, and the quality of having a great manager. They also found that an overwhelming number of employees prefer having a good manager over a significant pay raise if given a choice.
  2. Companies miss the mark on 82% of management hires: According to Gallup companies mistakenly hire people who don’t have the natural talent for management or don’t properly train managers to be effective within their organization. Hence, most of the arguments against management will come because of the classic inabilities of leaders to identify quality managers and develop management programs. The management skills of a school principal, athletic director, dean of students, curriculum director, or faculty coach are all significantly important, but substantially different. Let’s be honest, the management training program in our profession is insignificant for the needs of our schools and the goals of supporting high quality teachers in the classroom.
  3. Only 35% of managers are actively engaged in their work: Leaders of schools should also consider their own management skills as they identify, lead and manage their managers. So many of the leaders I know hire a great team, but then either make the mistake of undermanaging their team leaving this second level of leadership frustrated leading to disengagement throughout the organization.

What Great Managers Do:

According to Gallup there are a number of qualities of highly effective managers, but to summarize there are three that I think are quite appropriate for schools. Those three qualities are that:

  1. Engaging managers are present: Unlike school leaders who spend a significant amount of time outside the school managers are present within the daily operations of the school. They are attuned to the daily work and needs of teachers and respond accordingly because they have the opportunity to build more significant relationships.
  2. Engaging managers translate the vision to daily action: Unlike school leaders who speak about “the vision” in philosophical terms it is the managers who embody the vision and bring it to life in the daily work of the school. The most effective of these managers tend to create teams that are highly engaged with each other in practical pursuits.
  3. Engaging managers give feedback: If bi-annual or annual evaluations are the only time an employee gets feedback then disengagement dramatically increases. Effective managers are known for their weekly engagement in the work of their employees, and the best are known for giving daily feedback. This is not micro-managing, but active interactions and communication are about developing relationships that lead to daily improvement.

Questions for Re-thinking your School’s Structure:

There are many suggestions I have on how to build a more complex organization that values the marriage of leadership and management, but there are five questions I’d like school leaders to consider before making future organizational suggestions.

  1. What are your personal opinions regarding management?
  2. Do you fill management positions with the right people or do you use management positions to increase an employee’s salary?
  3. Do you fill management positions with the right people or do you use management positions to increase an employee’s salary?
  4. Does your organizational and bureaucratic structure enable or stifle engagement?
  5. Do you manage your managers?


  • Erik Ellefsen

    Erik Ellefsen is a CACE Senior Fellow and the Director of Networks and Improvement at the Baylor University’s Center for School Leadership. He also serves as Senior Fellow for Cardus, hosts Digital Education (a podcast providing engaging conversations with some of the most innovative education leaders), and is a leading collaborator and author of the Mindshift and Future Ready projects.

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